Monday, May 25, 2020

Shaped by Books

The other day I had a brief exchange with a writer friend about the movie You've Got Mail -- in particular, that quote from Meg Ryan's character, about how when you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of you.



That quote resonates with me. SO MUCH!😍 All the resonance, lol. I believe books shape us, and yes, that more than at any other time in our lives, the books we read as a child shape who we are and who we become. It's a significant part of why it's so important to put diverse books into the hands of kids (and adults, of course). Stories help us become empathetic, compassionate people. They help us understand our world. They create hope, and they fuel the belief that we can -- and should -- make a positive difference in the world.


Do we recognize this shapingthis becoming part of our identity, as it's happening? Do we notice the many ways books are equipping us for the future? Do kids feel themselves growing, changing, being shaped by the stories they take in?

Personally, I don't remember -- childhood was a looong time ago, lol. But giving it some thought, honestly I don't recall noticing the impact stories were having on my beliefs and values and priorities. I only knew I loved reading them. And that was enough.

I wonder, though, how different were other kids' reading experiences? Do middle-grade readers notice the impact books have on them? I'd guess only the very self-aware among them do, except occasionally, all readers might, when a specific book comes along that precipitates a dream or drive for them (I must adopt a shelter dog just like Character A did! I vow not to be a bystander when I witness bullying, just like Character B!). But more often, the power of stories is subtle.

I recall loving certain books as a child -- some that I love still -- and I wonder if those books in particular were the ones that most became part of my identity. It's something I want to ponder more. Tell me, do you remember the impact of specific books from your childhood?



Monday, May 18, 2020

Interview with Angie Smibert, author of The Truce

Today, I'm thrilled to welcome author Angie Smibert to the blog!!! She's the author of the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series. The third book in the series, The Truce, comes out May 26th, 2020.

First things first, can you tell us more about The Truce?

In the third book of the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series, it’s December 1942 in the small coal mining community of Big Vein, Virginia. By now, Bone Phillips (12) is growing accustomed to her a Gift, a family Gift, as her Mamaw calls it, and maybe even begun to embrace it. Bone can see the stories or ghosts inside ordinary objects. But there’s one object her beloved Uncle Ash has forbidden her to touch: his dog tags from the first World War. He came back from that war a changed man, and every year about this time, he needs to escape for a while. He packs up the truck and his dogs and asks Bone to declare a truce with her dreaded Aunt Mattie while he’s gone. Reluctantly, Bone does. However, the truce is soon threatened by a discovery in the mine:  a body—wearing Uncle Ash’s dog tags. Bone has to use her Gift to solve the mystery. And that’s all I’ll say for now…except there is a ghost dog involved.

Ooh, a ghost dog!! Love it! Bone is such an interesting character. How was she born?

The story started with a sense memory of swimming in the New River as a kid, much like Bone does in the beginning of Bone’s Gift, the first book in the series. I remembered the feeling of being that kid who didn’t want summer to end or to particularly grow up and be the ‘little lady’ that other people expected. Bone was born out of that feeling.

This is the third novel in the series. Will there be more?

That’s it for now! I’m playing around with a short story, though.

These three novels are set in rural Virginia, where you live. How do you feel about the connection to place in your writing?

Actually, I live in a city—Roanoke—in Southwest, Virginia. However, I grew up in Blacksburg, a small college town west of here. And my mother’s family is from McCoy, a rural area outside Blacksburg along the New River, where there were coal mines until the 1950s. One of them was called Big Vein. My grandfather and his brothers were miners there—until he got hurt. Then he took over his father’s store. In fact, I kept that store in the books. In many ways, writing these stories has been an exploration of this place that I came from. And as Eudora Welty wrote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.”

You weave folklore into the story. Tell us more about that.

Appalachian folklore is part of the place, the characters, and even the plots of the books. Bone loves stories, from folktales and legends to movies and books. However, she doesn’t like real-life stories—so, of course, that’s why I gave her the Gift of being able to see those.

In each of the books, Bone or one of the other characters—like Uncle Ash—is always telling a folktale or ghost story from the region. Plus I also used a particular story as the “spine” (for lack of a better word) of the plot. For instance, in Bone’s Gift, Bone’s life mirrors a story she’s telling called “Ashpet”—the Appalachian version of Cinderella. In Lingering Echoes—which is set at Halloween—the ‘spine’ tale is Stingy Jack, the origin story of Jack O’Lanterns. At the heart of The Truce, there’s a ghost dog story.

Ghost or spirit dog stories are popular in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. (And also found in many other folklores.) A ghost dog might come to warn someone about an impending death. Or the big black dog might actually be there to claim a wicked person’s soul. However, in a few stories, the dog is protecting someone or some thing, such as a fabled silver mine. And as I said, in the Truce, there is a ghost dog and he/she might be near a mine.

For more on folklore and history in the series, please see my resource page: https://www.angiesmibert.com/blog/?page_id=1861#ghostsresources

Wow! So many folklore connections! Now for the big question: what can we expect next from Angie Smibert?

I’m working (slowly) on a spooky magical realism-type story set in the early 1970s in Appalachia that involves (so far) an old resort turned into an artist commune and a ghost or two. I’m also still teaching writing. That takes up a lot of my time lately. ;)

Yup, I'm going to need that book ASAP! Sounds awesome!


Now it's time for the dreaded Lightning Round...muahahahaha!!!

Hogwarts house:  Ravenclaw

Favorite spooky book or movie: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (tho, as you'll see below, I'm also a Harry Potter fan.)

One fact most people wouldn’t know about you: I'm on level 38 of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. ;) (I'm a level 14 magizoologist, btw. Anyone want to ride the Knight Bus to come battle foes with me at Hogwarts Castle?) And, of course, I'm in Ravenclaw.

Best Halloween costume from your past: boxing aliens. This was in the late 90s. My friend had given me a boxing alien puppet. (Do they still make these? There were others, including a boxing nun.) So we decided to make matching boxing alien costumes. This involved making paper mache heads, complete with glowing neon eyes, and duct tape-foam boxing gloves. We got graduation gowns from a thrift store. The costumes were a hit at the party--but very hot! Did I mention this was in Florida?

Favorite board game: If you'd asked me this a few months ago, I would've said Pandemic. And I was thrilled when its designer, Matt Leacok, blurbed my board game book last year. Right now, though, I'd say my fave board game is either Code Names or Exploding Kittens (which is a card game). 

What are you reading now?: Actually, since I'm teaching an MFA thesis course right now, I'm reading A LOT of student manuscripts.  I have also been listening to short stories from a few recent volumes of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (edited by Jonathan Strahan) on Scribd. One of my favorite these  is "Red Dirt Witch" by NK Jemisin. Love her stuff and have the latest on order!


Angie Smibert was born in Blacksburg, a once sleepy college town in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. She grew up thinking she wanted to be a veterinarian; organic chemistry had other ideas. But she always had stories in her head. Eventually, after a few degrees and few cool jobs - including a 10-year stint at NASA's Kennedy Space Center - she wrote some of those stories down. Visit her online at: https://www.angiesmibert.com/blog/

Monday, May 11, 2020

Author Eileen Moskowitz-Palma discusses her new book THE POPULARITY PACT: CAMP CLIQUE: BOOK ONE



Now that the weather is getting warmer, I can almost imagine summer. And speaking of summer, I thought this would be the perfect time to interview author Eileen Moskowitz-Palma about her new book THE POPULARITY PACT: CAMP CLIQUE: BOOK ONE.

I got a chance to read this book (and blurb it!) before publication, and I absolutely adore it!






About the Book: 

In the blink of a summer, Bea goes from having a best friend and a place she belongs to being dropped and invisible, eating lunch alone and only talking to teachers. The end of sixth grade and the start of Camp Amelia can't come soon enough. 

But then the worst part of school, ex-best friend Maisy, shows up in Bea's safe place and ruins it all. Maisy lands in the same bunk as Bea and summer suddenly seems dire. Never having camped a day in her life, Maisy agrees: it's hopeless. She should be at home, spending time with her little sister and hanging out with her super popular crew of friends--not at this stupid adventure camp failing everything and being hated by everyone. In a desperate bid to belong, Maisy offers Bea a deal: if Bea helps her fit in at the camp, she will get Bea into the M & M's, their town's popular clique, when they enter seventh grade in the fall. The Popularity Pact is born.


The interview:

First of all, tell me what inspired The Popularity Pact: Camp Clique: Book One? 

From my experience as a teacher and a mother, I noticed there are many kids who feel socially accepted in one part of their life, while struggling in another. Sometimes it’s the captain of the travel soccer team who has no one to sit with at lunch, other times it’s a kid with a tight friend group at school, who doesn’t know how to make new friends when they move to a new school. I wanted to explore what happens when a child’s confidence is shaken because they don’t fit into a part of their world.

Changing friendships is a common (and painful) theme in middle grade fiction. Why did you want to focus on it and did you experience anything similar to what Bea and Maisy experience in the story when you were growing up? 

I remember middle school as the time when friendships matter more than anything else. Kids start to feel more independent from their parents and they haven’t started dating yet, so their best friend often becomes the most important person in their life. I didn’t experience what Bea and Maisy did, but my daughter was dropped from her friend group in eighth grade and it was the hardest season of parenting for me because there was nothing I could do to help her walk through that experience. I wanted to write a story to help kids who are experiencing the loss of a friendship, while also getting across the message that authentic friendship is more important than fitting in.

I love the cold-bloodedness of the two girls’ pact. They each believe that the pact is the only solution to what they’re each experiencing. How did you come up with the idea? It’s genius?

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert describes ideas as life forms that come in search of a human to partner up with. I know this sounds a little out there, but that is exactly what happened to me. I was on a long car ride with my family, when all of a sudden this idea showed up quite insistently. I thought about what might happen if the queen bee of middle school (Maisy) ends up being the underdog at camp and she has to rely on the invisible girl at school (Bea) who is popular at camp to help her fit in. The idea of the pact came to me so suddenly and in such a powerful way that it felt very much like Elizabeth Gilbert describes. 

Getting to experience someone else’s world is both daunting and eye-opening; Whose shoes would you love to walk in for a day? 

Because I have chronic autoimmune issues, I have been homebound during this pandemic except for the occasional walk outside. For the past eight weeks, my husband has been working long hours as a veterinarian in Manhattan in the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. On his days off he has to shoulder the burden along with my daughter Molly of doing all of the grocery shopping and errands because I can’t leave the house. If I could trade places with anyone right now, it would be my husband, so that I could do all of the grocery shopping and errands and give him a reprieve. 

There is a neat twist at the end of the story that I won’t give away, but was book two completely plotted and written before your agent pitched this to your publisher? Is it already written (I can’t wait!)

Originally, The Popularity Pact was a stand-alone book that only told what happened when Bea helped Maisy fit in at camp. When I queried my agent Lauren Galit, she pointed out that I only told half of the story. She asked me what happens when the girls go back to school? She said readers would want to see what happened when it’s Maisy’s turn to help Bea fit in at school. As soon as she said it, I realized she was right. So I revised the manuscript so that it was half of a two book series, and outlined book two. Lauren shopped it around to publishers with the first manuscript Camp Clique completed, and the outline for the second book School Squad, which is now written and will be published on October 6th.

You and I have both had new books released during the pandemic. How did you pivot your book launch to reach people?

Leading up to my publication date, I was really looking forward to school visits because I am a former elementary school teacher. I made it to one school visit in the Bronx the last week before schools closed in New York and left feeling inspired to connect with more kids over writing. Days later, when I realized that there would be no more school visits I was immediately caught up in my own disappointment. But then I saw my social media feed fill up with parents who were suddenly figuring out how to homeschool and work from home at the same time. At the time schools were still in the process of setting up online curriculum, which added another layer of stress for parents who wanted to keep the education momentum going for their kids, but didn’t yet have a solid game plan in place. I realized that I could help. I set up virtual creative writing camps for kids in grades two through eight. I worked with almost 100 kids from all over the country in the first three weeks of the program. There is no cost for the camp, I only ask that parents order both books. 

How are you engaging with readers during this time of social distance?

I promised all of my writing camp kids that we could reunite after they read the book for book club discussions. I told the kids to jot down any questions they had about the book while they were reading it and to bring those questions to our meeting. It gave us the opportunity to have a discussion based on the things they really wanted to talk about. They asked such great questions that I am going to include them in the reading discussion guide at the end of the paperback edition of Camp Clique. This experience taught me that there are all different creative ways to connect with readers. I am looking forward to continuing the virtual writing camps and book clubs through the summer and will be partnering up with libraries, museums and other programs over the country. 

Eileen's Social Media Deets:

For information about writing camp or book clubs, please email Eileen at eileenmpalma@gmail.com.